William Jay Smith Analysis

Other literary forms

(Poets and Poetry in America)

Although William Jay Smith published mainly original poetry for adults and children, he also compiled a number of volumes of poetry, including The Golden Journey: Poems for Young People (1965) with Louise Bogan and Poems From France (1967). He edited numerous books of poetry and adapted the Swedish poetry of Elsa Beskow as Children of the Forest (1970). His publication of Valéry Larbaud’s Poems of a Multimillionaire (1955) and The Selected Writings of Jules Laforgue (1956) established him as an important translator. He translated Two Plays by Charles Bertin in 1970.

In addition to poetry, Smith wrote essays and a study of well-known literary hoaxes and lampoons, The Spectra Hoax (1961). The Streaks of the Tulip, a collection of literary criticism, appeared in 1972. He published Children and Poetry: A Selective Annotated Bibliography in 1969. He has contributed to a vast number of poetry anthologies and has presented television programs on poetry for children.


(Poets and Poetry in America)

Probably the most impressive accomplishment of William Jay Smith is his poetry’s great diversity in form and content. Although he demonstrates a conviction that poetic feeling can best be developed through submission to discipline and form, he expresses more expansive feelings in his free-verse experiments later in his career. Despite the judgment of some critics that he sacrifices rhyme for wordiness, he apparently reached a point in his career that evoked a deepening range. His later complexity is evident in New and Selected Poems, a somewhat slender volume that indicates evolving sensibilities and a shift in his philosophy of composition.

As diversified as his experience, his poetry has many voices. Sometimes delicate and aesthetic, and at others intense and compelling, his range of subject and tone can extend from rich, courtly, precise phrases to witty, nonsense verses for children. Smith has the power to rejuvenate his readers. Serious statements are frequently disguised as children’s whimsy to gain distance from reality and thereby create a more complex imaginative realm.

In his long, distinguished career, Smith has received numerous awards, including Poetry magazine’s Young Poet’s Prize (1945), the Union League Civic and Arts Poetry Prize from Poetry magazine (1963), a Ford Foundation Grant in drama (1964), three National Endowment for the Arts Grants (1972, 1975, 1989), the Russell Loines Award (1972), an Ingram Merrill Foundation Grant (1982), a California Children’s Book and Video Awards recognition for excellence (1990), the French Academy’s medal for Service to French Language (1991), and the Louisiana Writer Award (2002). He served as consultant in poetry (poet laureate) to the Library of Congress from 1968 to 1970.


(Poets and Poetry in America)

Dickey, James. Babel to Byzantium: Poets and Poetry Now. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1968. Poet Dickey offers a brief but enthusiastic evaluation of Smith’s place in American poetry.

Frank, Elizabeth. “The Pleasures of Formal Poetry.” Review of The World Below the Window. The Atlantic Monthly 282, no. 3 (September, 1998): 134-137. Evaluation of Smith’s poetry—its various voices and forms—and of his place among modernist contemporary poets who continue to write in traditional rhyme and form.

Meyers, J. “William Jay Smith: Dancing in the Garden and Words by the Water.” Review of Dancing in the Garden and Words by the Water. The New Criterion 27, no. 5 (2009): 65-67. This review looks at both the poetry collection and memoir and notes how Smith’s life influenced his writing.

Slavitt, David R. “William Jay Smith.” In American Writers: A Collection of Literary Biographies—Supplement 13, Edward Abbey to William Jay Smith, edited by Jay Parini. New York: Scribner’s, 2003. A brief biography that looks at Smith’s life and works.

Smith, William Jay. Army Brat, a Memoir. New York: Persea Books, 1980. Smith details his early life as a military child. This coming-of-age book contains insight into Smith’s discoveries of language and his poetic talent.

_______. “A Frame for Poetry.” In Poets on Poetry, edited by Howard Nemerov. New York: Basic Books, 1966. Smith explores several of his poems, commenting extensively on their genesis, his writing process, and creativity.

“William Jay Smith.” In Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series, edited by Susan M. Trosky. Vol. 44. Detroit: Gale Research, 1994. This article provides an excellent overview of Smith’s life and career, focusing on critical attention to his later work, specifically Army Brat, a Memoir.